Reagan's Gift

Interviews with well over a hundred senators ,congressmen ,former high government officials ,and leading opinion-makers in security policy suggest that George Bush should move early in his term to complete a strategic-armsredaction treaty with the Soviet Union

BY JACK BEATTY

RONALD REAGAN HAS LEFT GEORGE BUSH A GIFT, THE kind of inheritance that a new President dreams of but rarely gets. Reagan’s gift to Bush is the chance to make history, to crown his first term with success, perhaps even to win the Nobel Peace Prize. After a campaign for the White House built around a ferociously negative philippic against Michael Dukakis, Bush needs to cut the figure of a statesman. He needs to make a fresh start. In a coincidence that no reiisher of bad puns could pass by, Reagan’s gift just happens to be known by the acronym START, which refers to the strategic-arms-rcduction treaty that the United States and the Soviet Union have been working on at Geneva for the past few years.

START would halve the number of strategic-range nuclear weapons—the type targeted on Minsk and Minneapolis—in the arsenals of both superpowers. That prospect is one reason why the public, according to the most sophisticated recent poll on the subject, overwhelmingly approves of the broad formula of START, 55 percent being “strongly” in favor of it and 27 percent “somewhat” in favor, which comes to a politically intimidating 82 percent. To be sure, public support even of this order does not guarantee that START will be ratified by the Senate, two thirds of whose members must vote for the treaty in order for it to become law.

That is why I and my colleagues in The Annapolis Group, a bipartisan organization of policy and political professionals interested in security policy, have sought out a more precise form of intelligence to guide the new administration. Over the past year we have interviewed more than 125 members of the national-security-policy community. They include twenty senators who are bellwethers on treaty ratification, and thirteen members of the House of Representatives who are influential in shaping the relevant debate. In addition, we have talked to former high government officials, academic experts, leading active and retired general officers, and others whose views might sway votes in the Senate. In short, with tape recorder and pencil we have explored the political geography of arms control. What we found was Reagan’s gift. “There is keen interest in arms control,” says Henry Hyde, a Republican congressman from Illinois, voicing a widespread sentiment. “The new President will have to step in where President Reagan has been.” John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, put the same thought this way: Bush “will inherit some very high expectations for progress on arms-control issues.” As these quotations suggest, with his success on the intermediate-nuclear-forces (INF) treaty, Reagan imparted a political momentum to progress on nuclear-arms reduction that, if Bush moves to exploit it, could yield a high-profile political victory early in his term, perhaps by the end of the year.

IF THAT SOUNDS LIKE AN INCAUTIOUS CLAIM TO MAKE for an enterprise as spiny with difficulty as completing a major arms treaty with the Soviets and steering it round the wrecks and reefs of the Senate, then compare START with a few of its competitors for primacy of place on the new President’s agenda.

President Bush will be under pressure in 1989 to match what President Reagan did in 1981 and come up with a big political victory, but there just don’t seem to be any candidates for that role this year in domestic policy. There is, in short, no “economic Dunkirk" on the visible horizon from which dramatic legislation painless to politically articulate classes, like the tax and budget cuts of 1981, can save us. As for the environment, education, health care, drugs, they are all worthy but long-term issues.

In foreign affairs START’s competitors for the top of the agenda fall into a narrow band of possibility between the merely imponderable and the unquestionably disastrous. Events might thrust crises before President Bush from which he could try to extract a “win.” But this Micawberesque vision of foreign policy—something might turn up—is a formula for drift, not mastery. Moreover, the something that might turn up, whether in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, or Central America, is more likely to cost political capital than to provide an occasion to gain it.

This glance at the other contenders, brief and tendentious as it is, suggests that START, looked at strictly from a political point of view, is in a class by itself. Finishing START won’t be easy. Complicated policy issues are at stake, issues directly affecting not only the security but also the survival of the republic. After much hard work on them, however, our negotiators at Geneva have reached the “end game” of their negotiations—when a deal is in sight but when, also, the toughest questions remain to be tackled.

Overshadowing these negotiations are the domestic politics of treaty ratification. These are themselves so complicated and exigent that the administration must always have one eye on them. Indeed, it must frame its proposals to the Soviets with a criterion ot dual negotiability in mind: How will this play with the Soviets, and how will it play in the Senate? Peoria it can take for granted. For ease of exposition we will discuss the Soviet negotiation first. But what we are separating in analysis, the policy trom the politics, wall be continually interacting in reality.

Trust, But Verify

AT REYKJAVIK, PRESIDENT REAGAN AND GENERAL Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev reached a momentous agreement in principle to cut by about halt the superpowers’ arsenals of weapons with a range ot 5,500 or more kilometers—that is, strategic weapons. The Soviet total would be shaved from approximately 11,000 warheads to 6,000, and the U.S. total from approximately 13,000 to 6,000 as well. In addition, the two leaders agreed to cut the number of launchers—the bombers, submarinelaunched missiles, and land-based missiles that carry nuclear warheads—from some 2,500 on the Soviet side and 2,000 on the American to 1,600 on each side. How 6,000 warheads can be divided up among 1,600 launchers is what the subsequent negotiations have been all about. Under a later agreement struck by Paul Nitze, the senior adviser to the President and the Secretary of State on arms control, and his Soviet counterpart, each side’s 6,000 warheads will include 4,900 ballistic-missile warheads—those to be fired into the atmosphere by either landor submarine-based systems—and 1,100 warheads to be carried by strategic bomber aircraft.

At Geneva, at the close of the Reagan Administration, the chief remaining disputes were over three issues: landbased mobile missiles; sea-launched cruise missiles; and the relation, if any, between the reductions in offensive forces agreed to at Reykjavik and the status of the strategic-defense initiative (SDI), President Reagan’s problematic plan to protect the United States and its allies with a space-based defensive shield that could shoot down incoming Soviet missiles.

The dispute over mobile missiles is the least serious of the three. Whereas the Soviets have deployed roughly a hundred SS-25 mobile missiles carrying one warhead apiece and ten SS-24 missiles with ten warheads apiece, the United States has no land-based mobile missiles. Its official negotiating position is that such missiles should be banned, because their mobility makes their numbers worrisomely hard to verify. This position, however, is widely thought to be a two-pronged ploy, aimed both at the Soviets, from whom Washington hopes to extract a good verification agreement, and at Congress, which has dithered over “mobiles” for years. Democrats mostly favor a counterpart to the SS-25 called Midgetman, which is to be based on a “hardened” launch vehicle; Republicans want a counterpart to the SS-24, the MX, which is to be based in “rail garrisons” in the remote West. Unable to choose between the two, and knowing that there will be money for the full-scale deployment of only one. Congress last year passed the buck to the new President. He has until February 15 to choose between the Midgetman and the MX or pick some combination of the two. (Interestingly, the consensus of the general officers we interviewed was that he should choose Midgetman.)

Alternatively, he could decide against both. The case against mobiles—and almost no one The Annapolis Group talked to was strongly against them on strategic grounds— hinges on their relative exorbitance at a time when the Pentagon will be trying to fit the $400 billion in spending that it was counting on two years ago into a $300 billion annual budget. Paul Warnke, President Jimmy Carter’s chief arms-control negotiator, put the matter this way: “It in fact you’re going to get a fifty-percent cut in the Soviet counterforce-capable weapons [the SS-18s, the multi-warhead heavy missiles that make our land-based missiles vulnerable], then the question is, Is Midgetman worth the cost? Now, that’s not an arms-control problem; it’s a budget problem. There’s nothing wrong with Midgetman. Mort Halperin wrote an article some years ago in which he classified programs as the good, the bad, and the wasteful. Something like the B-l is not bad, but as a taxpayer I resent it.”

The reason the Soviets have mobiles and we do not, Warnke explained, has to do with the different land and character of the two countries. “Just because of geography, mobile missiles are a better bet for them than for us. We’d find a hell of a lot of difficulty having a genuinely road-mobile system.”

Interviewer: “I can see it going through Manhattan now.”

Warnke: “That’s right. Nobody is going to give it a party when it comes to town.”

As a result, Warnke said, “we could probably deploy mobiles only on military bases, where they’d be inherently more vulnerable, while the Soviets have lots more room for mobiles to roam. And you’re not going to have peace groups demonstrating against them, either. In any case, Warnke said, we already have mobile missiles, only they are based at sea, on submarines, not on land. “Submarines are not as good an option for the Soviets as they are for us, he said, “because they just don’t have the ready access to the open sea that we do. So it doesn’t bother me that they are going to mobile missiles.”

Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, believes that spending the money for a land-mobile system—cost estimates run as high as $36 billion—could be avoided by getting the right terms from the Soviets on START. He advised the next President to give the Soviets two propositions: “Either we’re going to reduce the ratio of your accurate missiles to our vulnerable missile silos or we’re going to change the vulnerability of our missiles.”In other words, if the Soviets do not agree to a missile-to-silo ratio such that a successful first-strike attack would be utterly inconceivable, then we will begin to change the nature of our land force—which is currently made up of 950 Minuteman missiles and 50 MX missiles — a w a y from the fixed positioning that prevails today and toward mobility. Such a force would be inherently less vulnerable to a first-strike attack because it would be harder to target.

Vulnerability haunts the advocates of Midgetman. A nuclear Pearl Harbor troubles their sleep. They are afraid that in a crisis the Soviets would be powerfully tempted to launch a pre-emptive strike against our bombers and our fixed land-based missiles. What about our submarines? Wouldn’t they deter the Soviets from such apocalyptic rashness? “The good thing about a small mobile ICBM [the Midgetman] together with submarines,”said R. James Woolsey, who was undersecretary of the Navy under President Carter and is, with Lieutenant General (Ret.) Brent Scowcroft, President Bush’s National Security Adviser, one of the leading proponents of Midgetman, “is that it’s belts and suspenders in a way. The Soviets would have to do two completely different kinds of things in order to pursue them or engage them.”Thirty-six billion dollars may seem a stiff price to pay for suspenders, especially if you’re already wearing a belt, but it is still billions less than the price of SDI, which almost everybody except Ronald Reagan now believes can, at least in the short term, work only as a kind of suspenders—an adjunct to deterrence based on the threat of retaliation, not a replacement for it.

Woolsey said, taking the long view, “If you look at offensive limitations since 1969, when all this got started, and ask, Have we been able to accomplish our main objective? Have we accomplished, through arms control, or are we about to accomplish, through the START agreement [with the ban on mobiles in place], the massive objective of preserving the survivability of fixed ICBMS? You’ve got to say, Absolutely not; it’s been a complete failure.”Going mobile, he said, would redeem the failure of this aspect of arms control, securing deterrence in an age of highly accurate missiles.

Woolsey disagrees with the Warnke argument that mobiles would themselves be vulnerable because they would be based on known Western military reservations. In order to target the mobiles successfully, he said, “it would take the entire throw weight of the Soviet ballistic-missile force. Once you’re charging that high a price, that method of attack looks silly.”So relax, Nevada.

Strategically, the Woolsey program—he’d like 3,600 ballistic-missile warheads to be allotted to our submarines and the remaining 1,300 that START allows to be split up among 200 to 700 Midgetmen and 50 to 100 MX missiles—would not be necessary if, in the climactic START negotiations, the Soviets went along with McNamara’s first proposition. Politically, however, our interviews suggest that a START treaty would have a stronger chance of being ratified by the Senate if it allowed the United States to go mobile. It irresistibly reinforces a senator’s convictions to be able to support “peace” (START) and “strength” (mobile missiles) at one and the same time.

PRESS ACCOUNTS GIVE THE IMPRESSION THE IMPRESSION THAT SDI IS the main impediment to ST ART, but in fact it is sealaunched cruise missiles, or SLCMs, that have become the eleventh-hour “treaty-blocker, if not treats buster, according to Strobe Talbott, who has written a report on the Geneva negotiations for Foreign Affairs.

The cruise missile is a flat-trajectory weapon on the model of the German V-l flying drone. It comes in two demeanors—conventional and nuclear—and, as we will see, that ambiguity is a bedeviling one. The Navy won’t say how many SLCMs, nuclear or conventional, it has at sea now, but it plans on a total of nearly 4,000 of these missiles, pending the results of the START talks.

At Geneva the Soviets proposed that each side be allowed 400 nuclear and 600 non-nuclear SLCMs. The United States has rejected the Soviet proposal. But the debate is not really over numbers. It is over verification.

Even up close experts can’t tell the difference between the two kinds of SLCMs. Faced with an analogous problem in the INF negotiations—what to do about land-based conventionally armed cruise missiles—the two sides recognized the difficulty of verifying a treaty that kept conventional cruise missiles but banned nuclear ones, and agreed to abolish all land-based cruise missiles. The Navy would regard the abolition of SLCMs with horror. Surfaceship warfare has come to depend on cruise missiles, and the Navy does not want to go backward, especially since SLGMs are used today by the navies of countries that would not be signatories to START.

Privately, some Navy people say that they could accept a ban on nuclear-armed SLCMs; their presence has caused the Navy no end of diplomatic trouble in nuclearphobic countries such as New Zealand, the Philippines, and Japan. Yet when Paul Nitze floated the notion of just such a partial ban early last year, Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and the Joint Chiefs of Staff vetoed the idea on the grounds that the United States needed nuclear-armed SLCMs to buttress deterrence in Europe, especially now that the INF treaty has officially eliminated midrange U.S. missiles from the Continent.

An argument for banning, or strictly limiting, nucleararmed SLGMs under START which should commend itself to the Bush Administration is this: allowing them would make a mockery of Reagan’s vision of SDI. The Soviets, according to a recent article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, have deployed three classes of submarines equipped with new SS-NX-21 and SS-NX-24 nucleartipped cruise missiles. “The SSNX-21’s cruise speed and its low altitude capability,” said Proceedings, “make it practically invulnerable to current anti-missile defense”—or, we might add, to anything envisioned by SDI, which is to be a shield against ballistic, not cruise, missiles. If nucleararmed SLCMs are not banned or heavily limited by START, and if we move ahead with SDI, then there will be nothing to stop the Soviets from shifting their nuclear assets to SS NX-21 s and -24s, leaving us in multi-billion-dollar chagrin, having spent a fortune on a defense that was outmoded at birth.

Any partial ban will be extremely difficult to implement. Indeed, some of the experts we talked to think the conundrum of telling one kind of SLCM from another so serious that the two sides should leave them out of START and hope to make progress on them in the future, when a breakthrough in verification technology might have radically changed the picture. Others think you can’t have a meaningful strategic-arms-reduction treaty that leaves this form of weapon unregulated. They argue that the gains in stability brought about by STARTcould be undermined by a rapid proliferation of SLCMs. To exchange a cut in verifiable land-based missiles for an increase in unverifiable SLCMs seems to them a doubtful bargain.

They pin their hopes, instead, on verification schemes of fatiguing ingenuity aimed at preventing conventionally armed SLCMs from being converted into their more lethal twins. If the verification agreed to under INT was “intrusive,” calling for Soviet inspectors to take up residence outside the Utah factory that makes cruise missiles, these SLCM schemes would take “intimate" verification, with Soviet inspectors monitoring production inside U.S. defense plants and being frequent visitors on U.S. warships. The price of Reagan’s gift, it appears, could be greater transparency, greater openness, between two rivals inured to secrecy. Trust, but verify, Reagan’s dictum, requires no less.

BECAUSE THEY EXIST, SLCMS ARE A HARD ISSUE OF substance. Because it does not exist and because senators have staked out positions on the shape it would take if it did, SDI is an equally hard issue of symbolism. Since the START talks resumed, in 1985, the Soviets, according to one expert, “have been backing up toward the American position on SDI at sixty miles an hour. President Bush’s challenge will be to give the impression that they have backed all the way.

They don’t have far to go. The United States, they say, can’t have a START treaty unless it agrees to abide by the 1972 anti-ballistic-missile treaty for ten years; the United States, which currently specifies no time period, has in the past proposed seven years. A compromise looks eminently attainable.

The thorny part has to do with what the ABM treaty is interpreted to mean. The Soviets say that they want to adhere to a “strict” interpretation of the treaty, which would limit the testing of mechanisms capable of destroving a missile in flight. The Reagan Administration adopted a “broad” interpretation, under which such testing would be allowed. However, because the Democratic Senate favors the strict interpretation, the Reagan Administration seemed prepared to live with face-saving ambiguity.

Several sources reminded us that the germ of a compromise on testing was introduced by Ronald Reagan, of all people, in his second presidential campaign debate in 1984 with Walter Mondale. Asked if he was serious about sharing the research and technology of SDI with the Soviets, he replied, “Why not? What it we did?. . . Why not do what I have offered to do and asked the Soviet Union to do? Say, ‘Look, here’s what we can do. We’ll even give it to you. Now, will you sit down with us and once and for all get rid ... of these nuclear weapons, and free mankind from that threat?' ”

The President’s suggestion was widely derided at the time as an old man’s chimera, but a spectrum of experts we interviewed thought that he was really on to something. If the United States agrees to exchange testing plans with the Soviets, if we embark with them on a mutual monitoring regime to realize Reagan’s goal of open laboratories, and if we agree not to test space-based missile-killing devices for the period specified by the ABM treaty, as it is understood by both parties to it, then a compromise on SDI can be had, one that would not hinder robust research on, and even testing of, SDI.

In a speech before the Philadelphia World Affairs Council in 1985, Paul Nitze laid down two criteria to help us judge the feasibility of technologies promising a breakthrough on strategic defense. First, the technologies “must produce defensive systems that are survivable; if not, then the defenses would themselves he tempting targets for a first strike.”Second, the “new defensive systems must be costeffective at the margin"—that is, they must he cheaper to deploy than would be the Soviet offensive missiles needed to overcome them.

The Nitze criteria constitute a lion in the path ot Reagan’s hope to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete" by replacing deterrence with defense. The debate over SDI has moved away from Reagan’s sweeping vision, but the terms of the debate are still his. Reagan’s legacy to George Bush is not so much a specific program as it is the idea of defense. By cutting the Soviet offense in half, START would allow Bush to preserve that idea until, sometime in the future, it must keep its rendezvous with the Nitze criteria.

“Time Is Not a Free Good”

THE ABIDING POLITICS OF TREATY RATIFICATION IS center-right, because it takes the votes of at least sixty-seven senators to make a treaty into law. That should he good news for George Bush, as it would have been bad news for Michael Dukakis. The field Bush will he playing on, according to Daniel Evans, the just-retired Republican senator from Washington, may be divided into four parts. “If you could rate the Senate as it sits today,”he told us, “you would have four types: the arms-control enthusiasts, the realists, the skeptics, and the blind opponents. You’ll never get the opponents, but they’re a small handful. The enthusiasts will be there for anything. They’re larger than the opponents in terms of numbers, but it’s the two center groups that are going to play the important role.” On START these center groups are Bush’s for the wooing, or so our interviews strongly suggested.

However, as one Republican senator told us, “there is a great deal of suspicion of Bush on the part of a lot of conservative Republican senators. Now, whether there are thirty-four of them or not is a different question. But there is no doubt that Bush does not have the immediate credibility with the right wing that he might.”That wing may not he decisive in the Senate, but it is overrepresented in the opinion industry, where it is exceedingly voluble, and, under the banner of maximalist verification, it will raise a rearguard din against START.

A senior Democratic staffer described the dilemma this din will create for Bush: “My own sense of it is that Bush will quickly realize he’s in a box, because if he yields on either SLCM verification or SDI, he will be denounced by the conservative wing of his party, and they’re going to be very nervous and vigilant—in the first few years, anyway. He’s going to want to see his legislative agenda pretty far down the road before he risks alienating his conservative wing on such a fundamental point. And I think he’s going to see no way out of that box, except to go slow.

This staffer predicts that Bush will disguise his politically motivated need to go slow on START by emphasizing conventional-arms control more than strategic reductions. “But that,” he added, “can buy you only so much time, because conventional-arms control is going to take about thirty years to he realized.”He thinks that Bush won’t be able to make the “fundamental decision” about whether to compromise on SDI/ABM until the third year of his term.

That is the rationale for delaying START.

WHAT IS THE CASE for pushing ahead? It begins with the Soviet threat. Every day we stall on START, the threat is unconstrained. The unratified SALT II treaty having lapsed, the Soviets are not bound by treaty from increasing the number or improving the quality of their strategic offensive forces.

Second, there is Mikhail Gorbachev’s political position to consider, Yes, we should sign arms treaties only if they strengthen our security or serve our larger interests. But President Reagan gave a benediction to perestroika, Gorbachev’s program of reform, as being in our interest, and George Bush has never really attempted to annul that benediction. If Gorbachev should lose his footing because of a politically motivated delay on START, and if a hardline opponent of perestroika (a key component of which is arms reductions between the superpowers) should take his place, how will U.S. interests be served? Gorbachev, according to Robert Gates, the deputy director of the CIA, needs to “show success on the American account.”He needs START.

Then there is Ronald Reagan’s nimbus. It will be there in Bush’s first year, casting a bright, warm, reassuring glow. But by his second year it will have begun to fade. By then START might seem much more like what one source called “an orphan treaty,”its true parent cutting brush in Santa Barbara while its foster-parent neglects or ignores it.

Fourth, there are the Democrats. They control both houses of Congress, and President Bush can either try to govern with them or make his tenure a political Calvary bytrying to govern against them. By pursuing a START agreement early in his administration, he can forge a bipartisan coalition on arms control and defense policy generally. The longer Bush delays with the bipartisan emphasis of START, the longer the normal attrition of party politics will have to erode the support that START currently enjoys among Democrats in the Senate. Angry over judicial appointments, budget cuts, Central America policy, or the price of Reagan’s gift—ICBM modernization and, at the least, continued research on SDI—disaffected liberals could, in the name of cuts deeper than “deep,”abandon START, and join with Daniel Evans’s “opponents” to scuttle it.

START is a nexus at which the diverse groups that make security policy can meet. It has something for the advocates of “deep cuts”: a 50 percent reduction. It has something for those concerned over vulnerability: a reduction in the ratio of Soviet warheads to our vulnerable silos. It has something to offer those who want SDI: a cut in the offensive threat that any U.S. defense would have to parry. It has something for the military: a bounded Soviet threat, a new clarity about the systems that the Pentagon needs to defend the United States, whether Midgetman, MX, or SDI. And finally, as we shall see, it has something for an emerging coalition of senators of both parties who want to see progress made in conventional-armsreduction talks.

Just as progress on START would bring these diverse constituencies together in a common enterprise that would also allow them to advance their separate causes, so a delay would threaten to open tip a civil war among them, with, to take the most salient example, advocates of Midgetman fighting backers of SDI for scarce Pentagon dollars. This is why one senior Republican senator cautioned us that “the new administration can’t afford to take a lot of time reassessing, because momentum ... is critically important.” Or, as Alton Frye, of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it, “For George Bush, time is not a free good.”

Something on Conventional

AMONG KEY SOUTHERN DEMOCRATIC SENATORS, among their Republican colleagues generally, and in the ranks of former high government officials, we found widespread agreement with this statement of Robert McNamara’s: “I’m not sure you could get the fifty-percent reduction through Congress unless some progress was made on the conventional forces.” William Hyland, who was an adviser to President Gerald Ford, was even more emphatic: “I think you have to say there will or should be no START agreement unless simultaneously or during that process there is something on conventional.”

The demand for “something on conventional” as a concomitant of START grows out of the situation in Europe that was created by the INF treaty. By eliminating our intermediate-range missiles from Europe, as we will do under the treaty, we have weakened deterrence there. To follow up the nuclear thinning of INF with the even greater thinning contemplated by START is to leave Europe exposed—more so than it has been in years—to the threat posed by the numerically superior conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact. Such is the argument we encountered again and again.

Those who want to link START to what we might call CART (a conventional-arms-reduction treaty) are searching for an equivalent to the two-track policy initiated by NATO in 1979, under which NATO negotiated with the Soviets to remove the intermediate-range missiles they had placed in European Russia in the mid-seventies, while simultaneously moving to deploy its own intermediate-range missiles on a “second track.”INF seemed to vindicate that policy. If the two-track approach worked to pry Soviet missiles out of Europe, goes this line of thought, it should work to pry out Soviet tanks. But, William Hyland says, “the great tragedy of conventional-arms control is that we don’t have the second track.” A buildup of conventional forces in Europe is out of the question: there is neither the money nor the will. START appears to be the only candidate for the second track on the scene.

Putting CART before START, however, would be a formula for endlessly delaying START. Senator Richard Lugar, of Indiana, outlined one big reason why this is true: “There may be a possibility of conventional-arms reductions. But I would think that most of this [the call for conventional reductions before START] is simply mere chatter by people who are unaware of what has occurred in international arms negotiations for many years. For example, from the standpoint of NATO—even our friendly governments don’t have a unified position on the subject. I’m not sure we have a negotiating position within our own government as to what would be desirable. So among those with no responsibility, the thought is that somehow or other we’ve got to get at this. But finding out how to do it—that is a more complex issue than any other arms-control issue, and we really don’t have a framework tor thinking it through.”

It was partly for want of such a “framework for thinking it through” (What would be the goal of conventional-arms reductions? What form would they take? What do we hope to gain by them and what might we loser) that the last round of conventional-arms-reduction talks took fourteen years to go nowhere and establish nothing. A second reason was a lack of presidential focus on the issue. A third was that the bulk of the talks were conducted during the tenure of Leonid Brezhnev.

Brezhnev was not interested in limiting Soviet offensive forces in Eastern Europe, in part because—as Jack Snyder, a student of the Soviet military at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, has argued—he believed in the diplomatic uses of Soviet power: its latent capacity to intimidate Western European elites and governments. “Gorbachev,”Snyder wrote in International Security last year, “now sees the offensive shadow of Soviet military capabilities as more a hindrance than a help to diplomacy.” The reason is perestroika. “The hope for increased Soviet integration into the world economy plays a significant role in Gorbachev’s domestic economic plans,” Snyder wrote. “Unlike Brezhnev, he realizes that trade, credits, and technology transfers will be hindered if the Europeans perceive a looming military threat.”

That is why Gorbachev has taken the initiative on conventional-arms reductions, proposing that fresh talks be held, in Vienna, on an “Atlantic to the Urals basis, rather than restricting their focus to Central Europe, as in the past. The twenty-three NATO and Warsaw Pact countries were to have opened new talks on this new basis late last fall, but they were postponed until some time this year. At the level of rhetoric the general Soviet position is encouraging. “Our principle is simple,” Gorbachev has said. “All armaments should be limited and reduced. It there is any imbalance, we must restore the balance not by letting the one short of some elements build them up, but by having the one with more of them scale them down.”

April 4 will be the fortieth anniversary of NATO—a fitting occasion for President Bush and the other alliance leaders to probe the meaning of Gorbachev’s rhetoric and to begin the search for Lugar’s conceptual framework.

“Something on conventional” is, at bottom, a demand of symbolic politics. The senators raising it want to know that conventional-arms control has a presidential focus and that negotiations with the Soviets are well launched. Their interest sends a message to Gorbachev: if he wants START ratified, he must be as forthcoming in deeds as he has been in words. (Gorbachev’s decision—announced, in December, in his speech at the UN—to cut Soviet forces in Eastern Europe is just the sort of deed the senators are looking for.)

A Good Start

WHAT IS THE LARGER VISION OF START? IF IT LEADS to no other arms treaty, if START marks a stop to the quest to contain the nuclear danger, then future generations can say of it that it bound the threat: it set limits to Soviet offensive nuclear forces. All by itself, that would be a historic achievement.

Experts estimate that it would take from six to eighteen months to finish the START negotiations, and the draft text of the treaty calls for another seven years for the weapons on both sides to be dismantled and destroyed. By 1996 or 1997, then, we would enter the post-START era, coincidentally just about the time when research and testing are expected to reveal the reach and feasibility of SDI. To work in any meaningful way, SDI requires a bound offensive threat. In that sense, START, which in some press accounts has been pictured as a barrier to SDI, is really its prerequisite: we can’t even begin to think of deploying a strategic defense if Soviet offensive forces are unbound. So the first thing to be said of the world after START is that it would be one in which we could choose, with the Nitze criteria as our guide, whether or not we wanted to buttress deterrence based on offense with elements of strategic defense. Admittedly, Ronald Reagan’s goal was to replace deterrence with defense, but if that is a feasible undertaking, it is one that remains over the horizon of time, in the twenty-first century.

The second thing to be said about the world of 1996 or 1997 is that it would have witnessed—assuming that neither side breaks out of the treats—a painstaking object lesson in peaceful coexistence. Founded in fear, conceived in suspicion, and executed in distrust, START might yet give us grounds for hope. If, in the lumbering dance of arms reductions and verification, the superpowers can help each other transform a world with 12,000 strategic-range warheads on each side into one with only 6,000, then why not into one with 3,000? And if 3,000, then why not 1,000, 500, 100, 10, or even 0?

Some fear that prospect, citing the failures of conventional deterrence in this century (better known as the First and Second World Wars) and positing insidious dangers like nuclear weapons smuggled in suitcases. Paul Nitze spoke to these fears in one long, eloquent sentence in his speech before the Philadelphia World Affairs Council. “Nothing is wholly risk-free,” he said. “One must compare the alternative. It seems to me that the risks posed by cheating or suitcase bombs in a world from which nuclear arms had been eliminated from military arsenals would be orders of magnitude less than the risks and potential costs posed by a possible breakdown in the present deterrence regime based upon the ultimate threat of massive nuclear retaliation.” START does not, of course, have to lead to the world Nitze describes. It merely makes possible the opening of a door that closed with a blinding flash on August 6, 1945. It is George Bush’s historic opportunity to accept Ronald Reagan’s gift and open that door.